May 8th, 2008

operesque

Distinction strategies, unrecognisability, and the forbidden

I had a meeting last week at Sternberg, who'll publish my Book of Scotlands in 2009 (just in time to inject a little insanity into the lead-up to Scotland's likely 2010 independence referendum). Present were series editor Ingo Niermann, graphic designer Zak Kyes, and Caroline Schneider, the publisher. Zak was showing them designs for jackets and posters for the Solutions series.



What immediately struck me was the wrongness of Zak's designs. They were brutally stark, geometric, angular, functional, utilitarian. Looking at a dark poster of the floating eye pyramid from a dollar bill with an inverted triangle superimposed over it, I asked Ingo playfully "If this were a poster for a band playing tonight in Kreuzberg, what would the music sound like?" Ingo hesitated then said "I suppose it would be a Goth band of some sort. Or some kind of weird early 80s death metal."

Now, this is going to get us into all sorts of self-contradictory circles, but when I say Zak's designs looked wrong, I mean they really looked right. I'm not sure if his work is part of The New Ugly we've talked about here in the context of Mike Meiré, but I do think it's got the same kind of energy -- and I stress that word energy, because it's a dynamic quality, a sort of beauty-on-the-move rather than beauty-in-stasis.



Above all, Zak's work isn't coffeetable. The rough design I made when I pitched the book was a "coffeetable" design. It used a funky fat typeface, simple shapes and pretty colours to communicate the idea. Most good design is coffeetable design -- the other day, for instance, we looked at sleeves for records by The Chap (shown above), designed by Non Format. Immediately easy on the eye (another term for coffeetable might be "Easy Looking", a kind of visual version of Lounge), these sleeves, like my Scotlands jacket, aren't bad design -- they might even be good design -- but they don't go the extra length. They don't distinguish themselves. By failing to take a step ahead, they fall, inevitably, a step behind. By failing to risk wrongness they become, themselves, wrong.

This is where we have to talk about Distinction Strategies. A really good designer doesn't just want to work within established paradigms of accepted good taste. He wants to change those paradigms, making something truly distinctive-looking as well as distinguishing himself professionally. Now, you can't do this without plunging people, at least momentarily, into crisis and confusion. You can't do it without making work that looks, in some way, wrong. So my sense last week that Zak's work looked "wrong" was a sign, paradoxically, that he was doing something right. My rough sleeve instantly looked fey, dated, smooth.



Looking at the shelves at Sternberg, it was possible to see a corner being turned as Zak's work for them started to appear. Stuff which looked good in a coffeetable way suddenly started to be supplemented by stuff that looked noticeably different, odd, intriguing, wrong. I could see a battle of legitimation happening there on the shelves. The new look -- rather brutal and ugly, but full of the energy and strangeness of the new -- was starting to assert its wrongness as a new form of rightness. It was doing this by breaking the rules (which of course, in another paradox, is a rule in itself) and embracing the forbidden.

Distinction strategies cannot work successfully (in other words, can't do anything more than make you look like an amateur, a madman or an eccentric) unless they go hand in hand with legitimation, and Zak has that in spades, which is another reason he's so interesting. He's visual director at London's Architectural Association, one of Britain's few institutions wholly committed to the idea of the avant garde ("avant garde institution" is, of course, yet another paradox). He's also curator of the touring critical design show Forms of Inquiry, an important and influential exhibition dedicated to shifting the graphic design paradigm.



Without critical design, without this restless process of legitimation-distinction (and I'm invoking Max Weber and Pierre Bourdieu when I use those words), we'd be stuck in a wilting coffeetable world. It wouldn't really be such a bad world -- we'd have pretty colours and catchy shapes that we'd recognise instantly, the way we recognise the chords and arrangements in an Oasis song, the way it sounds familiar even on the first listen. But, like the creative world of Oasis, it would be a limited and lazy world.

I'm making a new album just now, and I'm making sure it sounds "wrong". In other words, that it has the energy of strangeness rather than the comfort of familiarity. I don't know if it's "progress" to keep ripping up rules and habits, but it's change, and that's good enough for me. Sure, we sometimes come full circle and re-invent Goth. Sure, we're brushing up against the 19th century Romantic idea of the artist as madman and the 20th century Modernist idea of the artist as scientist-innovator. And here we are in the 21st century, with the idea of the graphic designer as distinction-legitimation machine, forever teetering on the brink of the forbidden and the forgotten, forever struggling to recuperate, redeem and recontextualize. It's what makes the game, for me, worth playing.